Turner Contemporary: We are curious

Generation ART family workshop, Turner Contemporary

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Karen Eslea

Head of Learning and Visitor Experience, Turner Contemporary

Turner Contemporary is a visual arts organisation in Margate that believes in making art open, relevant and fulfilling for all. Our new gallery building, designed by David Chipperfield Architects, opened in April 2011 and has welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors in our first four years. Our programme enables intriguing connections to be made between historical and contemporary visual art.

The idea of the gallery was inspired by JMW Turner, and developed to lead Margate’s regeneration, and as such, learning has always been at the core of the organisation. Turner (1775 to 1851) was a working class boy with breath-taking talent, business acumen and a passionate love of learning. He was a frequent visitor to Margate spending time here as a child and again later in his life. He is said to have remarked to John Ruskin that the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe. Margate’s north facing position on the Kent coast accounts for the very particular quality of the light.

In the 1820s and 1830s Turner lodged with Sophia Booth in a house that was located on the same site as the gallery. The windows from the house provided Turner with an ever changing view over the beach, pier and jetty and Margate became a central subject in many of his works. His fascination with the sea may well have developed from his early visits to the north Kent coast.

Exterior of Turner Contemporary copyright B.Beker
Turner Contemporary

Known to most as a great British painter, JMW Turner was also a poet, an architect and Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy. He was intrigued by a diverse range of subjects, from photography, geology and chemistry to experiments in ultra violet light. He was at the centre of the artistic and scientific society of his day, creating connections with numerous innovators, including scientists Mary Somerville, Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday to Zoologist Richard Owen and photographer John Mayall.

Throughout his career this fascination with the way things worked, or were made, or the people who made them, of the effect that scientific and technological advance had on the world around him, never really deserted Turner.

(James Hamilton, Turner and the Scientists, 1998)

It seems to me that his vast knowledge, wide ranging interests and impressive networks were driven by one thing: his deep sense of curiosity.

We Are Curious

Before the gallery opened, I worked with freelance educator Michele Gregson to develop an ambitious, relevant and sustainable Schools Programme.

With the educational landscape changing rapidly around us as we began to shape our vision, we were reluctant to anchor the programme too firmly to specific content in the curriculum. Rather, we were drawn to JMW Turner and his endless curiosity.

During this development stage, we talked about Ken Robinson and particularly his question:

How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century, given that we can’t anticipate what the economy will look like at the end of next week?
(Changing Education Paradigms, RSA 2010)

The answer he proposes is that we nurture divergent thinking as an essential capacity for creativity.

Artists practice divergent thinking – seeing multiple answers and ways of seeing the question; they know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

The importance of ‘learning to learn’ and ‘building learning power’ (Claxton) is fundamental to developing creativity.

Like Elliot W Eisner, we believe that when learners behave like artists they are more successful in everything that they do.

As a response we developed We Are Curious, an inquiry based Learning Programme inspired by artists, including JMW Turner. It brings together hands-on exploration with a philosophical structure that supports creative questioning and thinking across the curriculum.

We want to equip children and young people to deal with the unknown, the challenging and the difficult – not just in art, but in everything that they do. Participants develop creative questioning and thinking skills, building confidence and improving communication. We aim to demonstrate how educational practice as a whole can learn from the way that artists think and behave.

By focussing on curiosity, we are also able to challenge conventional hierarchies of teacher and learner, creating a situation where people of different ages, and with vastly different expertise and knowledge learn together and from each other.

As Marina Warner states in the catalogue for Curiosity, an exhibition at Turner Contemporary in 2012:

. . . the spirit of inquiry itself , a principle of reason that will never be content; it is haunted by the openness of a child’s mind and yearns to recapture the child’s way of approaching the brave newness of the world.

Much of Turner Contemporary’s programme aims to put children and young people in leadership positions, enabling them to hold conversations with adults about art and ideas.

Youth Navigators

To give you an example of the We Are Curious programme, I will briefly outline one of our key projects, the Youth Navigators programme, which has been running since March 2011 and has Curiosity at its heart. Participants go through a period of training with a Practical Philosopher, artist and gallery staff which enables them to develop creative questioning and listening skills, and to lead conversations with gallery visitors. 

Whilst Youth Navigators employ Philosophical Inquiry to talk to visitors about the wider world and philosophical ideas, their conversations always start with artists’ work. After all, as Fluxus artist Robert Filliou famously said:

Art is what makes life more interesting than art.

Artists’ work considers endless themes and ideas which are relevant to us all, and can transport us to other times and cultures, helping us to imagine the world differently. One of the delights of the Youth Navigators Programme is to witness participants physically growing before one’s eyes. Their body language is transformed, and they are often flushed with enjoyment, as they gain confidence.

The bravery of talking to strangers about art is quickly rewarded, and the thrill of articulating new thoughts, and being listened to, is palpable.

I think that philosophical inquiry would help kids even if they don’t want to paint, or make, or draw. Seeing things from other people’s perspective — it’s kind of a life skill — it is useful in all areas of life, and not just for creative reasons. It has helped me to develop a more open way of thinking. If you think more openly, you can approach things with a different mind, or even a better one. (Young Navigator)

As we were developing this project, the question of how and why we educate our children came up repeatedly. This may have been in part due to the fact that we were swimming in unsettled waters following political change. On a visit to Moscow last year I met an inspiring gallery educator, working hard to change the way audiences interact with contemporary art. She told me that although her own education was good, she learnt only facts, and was never taught to formulate an argument, or express an opinion. She couldn’t remember being encouraged to be curious. In her attempt to challenge this approach now, she says she is predominantly met with anger and strong resistance.

Generation ART launch event, Turner Contemporary
Young Visitor at Generation ART, Turner Contemporary

Youth Navigators consistently ask for factual information about the artworks they are discussing. As a response, we introduced curatorial tours into the programme, and participants are also encouraged to carry out their own research about exhibitions. This desire for information, often at the beginning of the programme, to a certain extent signifies anxiety. They also tell us that they think this is what adults want – perhaps a reflection of how our society perceives learning as the accumulation of factual information? I believe that it also shows curiosity, and a desire to learn, as indifference would not prompt such a request.

Holes inside your head by Cameron Cliff
‘Holes inside Your Head’ Cameron Cliff

I hope that as many of the young people pass through the programme, and grow in confidence, they begin to see that the question they are concerned with, and the one that all good gallery educators wrestle with, is how should one mix conjecture and personal response with factual information? It quickly becomes apparent that offering factual information alone shuts down conversations. I know I learn best in the exciting space between curiosity and research, enjoying the sensation of moving in and out of fact and interpretation. After all, as Brian Dillon writes, curiosity…

never ceases to tremble between concentration and distraction, between lucidity and dream.

Inspiring Curiosity for all gallery visitors

Turner Contemporary has a strong culture of learning and experimentation. Our Director, Victoria Pomery, frequently talks of visitors and staff alike as being learners.

All staff work with a Practical Philosopher to develop their curiosity, and the skills to engage audiences in conversations about art and ideas. We work hard to create an atmosphere of questioning in the galleries, and many visitors remark upon this. We don’t just relay information about artists, but ask for thoughts and responses.

We have also begun to forge our own path in terms of interpretation, working with visitors to generate questions which in turn help us to engage others in artists’ work and ideas.

Fernando by William John Morris
‘Fernando’ William John Morris

With training from Narativ, an international storytelling organisation that works with companies including Disney and UNICEF, members of staff at Turner Contemporary have been telling Curious Stories in the gallery spaces, and asking ‘How do these objects connect with our everyday lives?’. Having told my own story about a doll-shaped candle that I own in front of fertility dolls from Angola, and fifteen gallery visitors expecting factual information, I empathised with our Youth Navigators. However, having told my story, I felt euphoric. Strangely, my musings on motherhood and collecting seemed to create new and deeper questions about the objects on display.

To conclude, the dominant discussion in the UK currently asks how education can train young people for work, and raise standards and attainment. It seems to disdain some human faculties, such as imagination or thought on the grounds that they are unproductive, and creates a false demarcation between academic achievement and the sensitivities associated with creativity. The counter argument is that we need to educate the ‘whole person’, and that by taking control of their own learning, and embracing their curiosity, the arts and creativity, young people can achieve academically in addition to enjoying a rounded and fulfilling life, whilst contributing to a fair and decent society.

At Turner Contemporary we are driven by the belief in the power of art to transform lives. By embracing the arts, and placing them at the centre of their own learning, gallery visitors and staff, are developing their curiosity, enriching their intellectual lives and imagining themselves, and the world, otherwise.

Karen Eslea
Head of Learning and Visitor Experience
Turner Contemporary, Margate